George Zimbel, a genial photographer who had empathy for ordinary people, but whose two best-known subjects were megastars, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy, died on Jan. 9 in Montreal. He was 93.
His son Andrew confirmed the death, in a care facility.
Mr. Zimbel (rhymes with “thimble”) captured people in the act of living: A sailor reading in his lower bunk on a submarine. A small boy dwarfed by a Great Dane in Harlem. A little girl playing hopscotch in the street. A baby pulling on a doctor’s stethoscope. A boy pointing a toy gun at a friend. Musicians and exotic dancers in New Orleans nightclubs.
In 1954, Mr. Zimbel entered an Irish dance hall in the Bronx and found a scene that he cast in noirish light: a young man, in the foreground, his hair tousled and his tie loose, turns toward five young women in the background who appear hopeful that they will be asked to dance — but who do not seem to be hoping that he’s the one who will ask.
It is one of three photographs by Mr. Zimbel that are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
But Mr. Zimbel photographed a far more famous scene in 1954: Marilyn Monroe on Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan, during the filming of a scene that was also a press event for Billy Wilder’s “The Seven Year Itch.”
Working for the Pix photo agency but without an assignment, Mr. Zimbel took pictures while a fan beneath a subway grating blew Monroe’s white dress upward to reveal her underwear, creating one of her most archetypal images. He also photographed her unhappy husband, Joe DiMaggio (whose agitation grew as the fan kept blowing Monroe’s dress, Mr. Zimbel said), and Monroe looking contemplative during a break in the shoot.
“This was the greatest publicity stunt ever created,” Mr. Zimbel said in “The Night I Shot Marilyn” (2016), a short documentary directed by his son Matt and Jean FrançoisGratton. “Still photographers were just eating it up.”
Mr. Zimbelwas one of those photographers, but far from the only one. And he tucked his negatives away and did not publish the pictures in the aftermath of the filming. “I’m not sure why,” he said, “but I didn’t.”
He moved on to an assignment and didn’t look at the negatives for 22 years. Eventually he began to sell the images, which were included in various exhibitions and in his book “Momento” (2015). (The best-known shot of Monroe and her billowing dress was taken by Sam Shaw, the film’s still photographer.)
Six years later, Mr. Zimbel photographed John F. Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts, and his wife, Jacqueline, as they greeted the crowd from an open convertible during a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan late in the 1960 presidential campaign. One of the pictures, taken from behind the Kennedys, made a lasting impression on Mr. Zimbel.
“The more you look at that picture, the more it gives you the willies,” he said in the film “Zimbelism: George S. Zimbel’s 70 Years of Photography” (2015), also by Matt Zimbel and Mr. Gratton. “You could never do that picture again. You could never get that close.”
A picture of the Kennedys waving became the focus of a dispute in 2000 and 2001 between The New York Times, which insisted it owned the print, and Mr. Zimbel, who argued that he had given the newspaper only a one-time right to use it and could not sell copies of it. The dispute was settled when The Times returned the print.
George Sydney Zimbel was born on July 15, 1929, in Woburn, Mass., near Boston. His father, Morris, owned a small department store; his mother, Tillie (Gruzen) Zimbel, was a homemaker and also worked in the store. Fascinated by the photographs he found in Life and Look magazines, George got a Speed Graphic camera at 14 and became a photographer for his high school and college newspapers.
Mr. Zimbel began selling photos while still a student at Columbia University. He also took a class at the Photo League, the left-leaning collective that would shut down in 1951 amid accusations that it was a Communist front. He learned printmaking, which he would master, and how to be a documentary photographer, which is how he defined himself for the next 70 years.
After graduating from Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in 1951, he studied at the New School for Social Research under the photographer Alexey Brodovitch, who was art director of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar.
After two years in the Army in Europe during the Korean War, Mr. Zimbel began his long freelance career. His photographs appeared in publications including The Times, Look, Redbook, Architectural Digest and Saturday Review. And for a decade ending in 1964, he indulged in a personal project that suited his interest in politics: taking photos of Harry S. Truman, the former president, whenever he was in New York City, and once at his presidential library and museum in Independence, Mo.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Zimbel moved into corporate photography and educational work for a research organization established by the Ford Foundation.
He moved to Canada in 1971 as a protest against the Vietnam War. He lived on a farm on Prince Edward Island before moving to Montreal nine years later.
In addition to his sons Andrew and Matt, Mr. Zimbel is survived by another son, Ike; a daughter, Jodi Zimbel; a sister, Judi Goldman; and nine grandchildren. His wife, Elaine (Sernovitz) Zimbel, died in 2017.
Mr. Zimbel’s work has been exhibited in the United States, Canada, Japan, France and Spain. He had three shows at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto.
Mr. Bulger, the owner of the gallery, said that Mr. Zimbel’s pictures showed a basic optimism.
“Other photographers in the 1950s had a suspicious view,” he said in a phone interview. “But George loved to show the best in a situation, which is what he was like as a person.”